Once upon a time, in the old city of Edo, stood an old shop which sold many antiques. It was a beautiful establishment, renowned for its masterpieces and rare work of arts.
One summer, as its owners were out visiting family for the week, they decided to trust their beloved shop to their best employee.
Days went by, uneventful and quiet, until a rich customer pushed the curtain and entered the shop. The man stuck up his nose haughtily, and ordered in a high pitched voice:
– I am searching for landscape paintings. Show me your finest scrolls.
The clerk bowed and quickly presented him the best items they had. But, no famous painter’s name, no breathtaking drawing seemed to satisfy the rich patron.
With impatient gesture of the hand, he would dismiss all scrolls:
– Borringly common, poorly execute, oh and this calligraphy is simply awful… And they say this shop is the best around. Don’t you have anything worth buying, boy?
The employee was getting fed up with this difficult customer but kept his professional smile on. He bowed again, apologising profusely to hide his discomfort. And decided to change tack:
– My lord, I know you were searching for a landscape, but something different might please your eyes?
And he unveiled another hanging scroll. The rich man’s eyes shone with envy.
Emerging from a pale mist, an ethereal woman stood elegantly. All dressed in white, with a forlorn face and no feet to be seen, there was no mistaking: the beauty was a ghost lamenting her past life.
The customer could not hide the desire lacing his bored voice:
– How much for this one?
The clerk stated the price, willingly increasing the sum, sure the man was going to harshly haggle over. But, the rich man simply nodded impatiently:
– So little? Well, here is half of the sum, I’ll bring you the rest of it tomorrow. Don’t you dare sell this scroll in the meantime!
And he was gone.
The clerk looked with disbelief at the money in his hands. The scroll was not worth that much! Slowly, a radiant smile blossomed on his lips:
– Tonight, I’ll drink on this moron’s behalf!
Later on that night, after a long drunken evening at the local bar, the clerk made a very inebriated return to the shop.
He bashed into fourniture, sloppily shushing uncaring cupboards and stools. And finally came to face the ghost on the hanging scroll.
The man bowed, nearly falling head over heels:
– You, you you! Congratulations pretty face: you’ve conned that idiot well!
He cackled like a fool and raised his hand, as if proposing a toast to the mute lady:
– We should celebrate! Come on, get out of here and let’s share a cup, partner!
The words had just left his lips, that the drunken man felt a cold shiver ran down his spine. The smothering summer heat had suddenly dropped, replaced by icy tendrils. Gone were the city’s sounds and the crickets’ songs. The clerk giggled nervously.
All oil lamps ignited at once. The man startled and backed up on shaky legs. The hair on is nape bristled when his eye caught something moving.
He turned his head, he found himself face to face with a woman. She smiled sweetly:
– I’ve heard about a party. You are the one searching for a drinking companion?
The clerk hazy mind could not process much farther than « oh god, she is so beautiful ». And he quickly dismissed the eerie fact that the hanging scroll was now all blank.
The man giggled again, blushing heavily:
– I couldn’t dream of a more charming companion tonight.
The woman beamed and clapped her hands with utter joy. She quickly drew out a bottle of sake and two cup, seemingly from thin air.
And that’s how the confused clerk, too drunk to be scared, found himself drinking alongside a ghost. They drank, the sake flask never empty, and they sang, and they danced, joking like old friends.
When morning finally came, rays of sun shook the clerk awake. He rose, his throat sore and his head pounding. He was nursing the hangover of his life.
– What a dream! I was truly hammered yesterday…
He grumpily made his way across the shop, until he stood in front of the hanging scroll. The ghost lady was there, but nowhere near as graceful or lovely as the day before.
She had sat down, blanketed in her ethereal mist, holding her head between her hands. The clerk cracked a laugh:
– It seems I am not the only one with a nasty hangover!
The painted woman could not make a sound but the man clearly saw her groaning. She covered her eyes, turning away from him. The clerk panicked a bit:
– Hey, don’t get back to sleep! The rich idiot his coming back today and I need you prim and proper or he won’t purchase the scroll!
The lady sighed and begrudgingly rose. She rearranged the mist around her and took pose, head high and murder in her gaze.
– Yes, I know same here, the light is killing me. I’ve got such a headache!
With her fingers, the woman mimicked tears rolling down her cheeks. He blushed:
– I know dear, I’ll miss you too. You know what, if you can, just come back anytime. We had the party of our life last night, aren’t we?
The ghost woman smiled truly and nodded vigorously before stopping suddenly. Her face has gotten a greenish hue. The clerk laughed for real, lovingly mocking her:
– Who would have thought ghosts could get hangovers!
Japanese art has several subdivisions. For example, if sansui designates paintings showing landscapes, ghosts and monsters pictures are called yurei-zu. Those types of pictures were especially popular during late Edo period.
Japan has always had a great fondness for ghosts and monsters, part superstition, part thrill-seeking. A famous parlor game of the time was the Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (100 ghost stories gathering). People would reunite at night and light one hundred lanterns. Then each person would tell a ghost or murder story. At the end of their story, the storyteller would extinguished one lantern – until 99 tales had been told. People thought that telling the last one would conjure an evil spirit.
Nowadays, this tradition is still sometimes done during summer – Japan traditional ghost season. This association is mainly due to the dead festival (Obon) which is held in July or August. Japanese also love the bone chilling feeling of monsters stories, movies or haunted houses – cold shivers of fear blowing away the smothering summer heat!